Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

The Bonhoeffer temptation

In his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf writes about various approaches to Christian engagement with the wider culture in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the typology developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. Volf identifies “liberal,” “postliberal,” and “separatist” tendencies, along with his preferred approach, which he calls “internal difference.”

Liberal accommodation is concerned to make the Christian message intelligible to nonbelievers, but often at the risk of sacrificing its distinctiveness. Postliberalism reverses this approach and tries to interpret everything outside the church within the terms of the Christian narrative. The problem with this approach is that Christian communities risk “clos[ing] themselves off from a meaningful conversation with the larger culture” (p. 86).

The separatist tendency is a radical intensification of the postliberal approach; it “imagine[s] Christian communities as islands in the sea of worldliness” (p. 87). Volf says that this approach is often inspired by a stance of Bonhoeffer-like resistance, in which churches are seen as being “In the midst of the world” but “taken out of the world” and whose surrounding cultures are viewed as “a foreign land.” Volf quotes Bonhoeffer:

At any moment [the Christian community] may receive the signal to move on. Then it will break camp, leaving behind all worldly friends and relatives, and following only the voice of the one who has called it. It leaves the foreign country and moves onward toward its heavenly home. (p. 87)

The problem with this approach, according to Volf, is that it universalizes what was a response to a very specific situation. Or to put it more bluntly: most places aren’t Nazi Germany! “If one isolates such an account of the relation between church and the world from its specific situation and elevates it to a general program for Christian presence in the world, serious problems arise” (p. 88).

If Christian communities only wander on earth but live in heaven, they will have their own truth and their own moral norms, their own practices, all of which would not only be determined exclusively by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ but would have little to do with what is considered true, good, and beautiful outside the sealed train in which they live. Christians would then be present in a given culture but would remain completely external to it. (p. 88)

It’s debatable whether it’s even possible to consistently take such a stance. But Volf thinks that it’s a real tendency, and one that denies that there is goodness outside the Christian community. But if the world is God’s good creation, then how can Christians deny that truth, beauty, and goodness exist outside the walls of the church?

As the Word came “to what was his own” (John 1:1) when it dwelled in Jesus Christ, so also Christians live in each culture as in their own proper space. Cultures are not foreign countries for the followers of Christ but rather their own homelands, the creation of the one God. If Christians are estranged from the world, it can only be because and insofar as the world is (and maybe they themselves are as well) estranged from God. Christian communities should not seek to leave their home cultures and establish settlements outside or live as islands within them. Instead, they should remain in them and change them–subvert the power of the foreign force and seek to bring the culture into closer alignment with God and God’s purposes. (p. 89)

You can see separatist tendencies among certain Christians on both the “Right” and the “Left” in America today. For different reasons, both see the United States as an utterly hostile culture and the proper Christian response as creating distinctive Christian cultures with their own norms, practices, etc. (Interestingly, Bonhoeffer is often cited on both sides.) From Volf’s perspective, however, these Christians have misjudged their situation; there is plenty wrong with contemporary U.S. culture and politics, but it’s not so far gone that the only option is withdrawal.

American henotheism revisited

C.K. MacLeod has a thoughtful post that is, in part, a response to my earlier post on the “God vote” and what I called “American henotheism.” C.K.M. argues that I didn’t adequately grapple with the response that “Americanist” Christians would make to my claim that enlisting God on the side of the American project is tantamount to idolatry:

In short, Americanist Christians, whose assumptions may extend far beyond the religious right, would reject Lee M.’s characterization of their beliefs. Strictly as a matter of logic, their position, which the right takes to be the authentic American position, would be necessarily idolatrous, or “henotheistic,” only under the presumption that Americanism is not or cannot also be an expression or embodiment of Christian universalism. Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition. Ardent American patriotism would in no way require or imply a subordination of the deity to the “limited group,” since it would be a response to divine providence, in support of a universal missionary project.

I think there’s something to this. Clearly American ideas about democratic equality have roots in Christian thought and are, in principle, compatible with Christianity (or so I think). Moreover, there’s a universal aspect to the democratic ethos that, again in principle, could underwrite a “missionary” project to spread democratic ideas and institutions.

What I want to emphasize, though, is how often God-laden rhetoric actually masks national self-interest and even aggression. It’s easy to slip from the idea that the democratic ethos is, in principle, universal to thinking that the spread of that ethos is identical with U.S. national interest. When politicians invoke the deity, they rarely distinguish between God’s blessings and God’s prophetic call to expand the boundaries of justice. The latter entails a degree of self-criticism, and potentially self-sacrifice, that is virtually unthinkable in contemporary American politics. (The reaction to Jeremiah Wright in 2008 helpfully illustrates this point.) No one gets elected by delivering jeremiads to the electorate. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that this is a logical result of treating a particular nation as the bearer of a “universal” (and religious) mission.

Romney, the “God vote,” and American henotheism

The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn must have a low opinion of religious people. That’s the only way I can explain her assertion that, because he dropped a platitudinous reference to “the Creator” during last night’s debate, Mitt Romney has captured the “God vote.” Weirdly, Quinn admits that President Obama often talks about his own Christian faith but says that he hasn’t done it in a debate. (There’s only been one!) Quinn says, without offering anything by way of evidence, that Obama needs to “wear God” like a lapel pin if he wants to woo the 85 percent of voters who say they believe in God.

Surely she knows that there must be substantial overlap between this “85 percent” and the roughly half of voters who went for Obama in 2008 and that say they’re going to again? And that many of these people might not need Obama to constantly drop references to the Almighty in order for him to show that he shares their values?

What I think was going on in Romney’s “we are endowed by our Creator with our rights” line was that he was echoing a bizarre (and demonstrably false) meme on the Right that the president intentionally omits the reference to “the Creator” whenever he quotes or paraphrases the opening lines of the Declaration. There’s a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.

Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.

By contrast, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.

When we use God as a political prop or a tribal marker, we’re committing what the Bible calls idolatry–putting a creature, whether it be the self or the group, above the Creator.

“Christian” as a niche demographic

Timothy Noah at The New Republic laments the use of the term “Christian” to refer exclusively to conservative, evangelical Protestants (and the cultural products that cater to them):

Every morning I wake up to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and this morning my first stirrings of consciousness concerned the new movie October Baby, about a young womanwho finds out that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion. Ten percent of the film’s profits will be donated to an anti-abortion charity. NPR’s piece about October Baby (audio, text), described it as one of several “Christian” films that Hollywood studios have started churning out. Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter‘s Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn’t like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

As I lay in bed struggling to wake up I thought: Christian? Christians aren’t some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. About 78 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say “Christian” is “Christian right” or “Christian conservatives,” terms that adherents don’t like because they think they’re pejorative. “Fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are imperfect substitutes because a) the two categories, though they overlap a lot, aren’t precisely the same; and b) some of these folks consider themselves political liberals. (The worldly Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr called himself an evangelical Protestant.) What conservative Christians really like to be called is “Christians.” Hence “Christian rock” and “Christian college” and now “Christian film.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn’t perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

When you consider Christianity’s foundational position in Western art and culture, it’s somewhat ironic that “Christian” used in this sense is an almost-infallible indicator of sub-par schlock that’s not worth your time.

Competing goods, sympathy, and democracy

The Obama administration’s decision, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, to require religiously affiliated institutions to provide contraception coverage in employee health plans has, not surprisingly, caused quite a stir. Personally, I’ve had a hard time forming a strong opinion on the issue, despite the fact that both conservatives and liberals have deployed near-apocalyptic rhetoric in arguing about it.

I think part of why I find it hard to come down clearly on one side or the other is that we seem to be dealing with incommensurable goods here. On one hand, the Catholic Church–or at least its leadership–is claiming that this requirement is a violation of the freedom of religion and of the church’s conscience. If a Catholic hospital or university, say, is required to pay for coverage that includes birth control, the church is subsidizing behavior it believes to be immoral. On the other hand, supporters of the administration’s position say that providing universal access to contraception enhances people’s–particularly women’s–health, autonomy, and well-being. Further, they argue that the church shouldn’t be able to impose its views on its employees who don’t happen to be Catholic, which is a significant number of them. (The ruling doesn’t apply to organizations with more explicitly “religious” purposes like the local parish church, only to organizations that provide a public service.)

For my part at least, I think both the freedom and relative autonomy of religious organizations to function according to their own convictions and ensuring widespread access to birth control are good things. But I have no clear sense of which should trump the other when they conflict. And it doesn’t help to put this in terms of rights (e.g., the right to religious freedom vs. the right to contraception) for the simple reason that there’s no clear or universally agreed-upon way of adjudicating between such competing rights-claims.

Conservatives have argued that the ruling is a clear violation of religious liberty. But we accept circumscriptions of rights all the time in the name of the common good. There is no “absolute” right to property or free speech. And we don’t permit discrimination based on race or gender in most cases, even if it’s rooted in some deeply held and sincere religious conviction.

By contrast, some liberals have argued that the case is clear-cut because anyone who takes the state’s money (whether in the forms of tax breaks or subsidies, or direct payments such as Medicare or Medicaid patients or federal student aid) has to play by the state’s rules. But this begs the question because, in a democratic society at least, the state’s rules are supposed to be contestable and subject to debate. What the opponents of the policy are claiming in this case is that the rule in question is wrong.

I’m not usually one to wring my hands about a lack of charity and civility in public debate, partly because I think “civility-policing” can and often is used to suppress strongly expressed, unpopular, or non-mainstream positions. But in this case I can’t shake the impression that neither side is particularly interested in trying to sympathetically understand the view of the other. I’ve seen conservatives say that this represents nothing less than a “war on religion.” On the other hand, I’ve seen liberals say that this shows that religion just needs to up and die already. Whatever you think of the case on its merits, I don’t think you can argue that this is a healthy attitude for citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society to take.

I guess for me what this comes back to is the simple fact that politics always involves trade-offs among competing goods. Unmixed progress is rare; more often, gaining one good comes only by giving up another. In this case, both sides seem unwilling to admit that the other is defending a legitimate good. But my hunch is that the ability to recognize that our political opponents are often trying to defend legitimate goods and to sympathetically enter into their perspective is essential to the well-being of a democratic society. It also seems like the right thing to do.

Do we need a Christian party?

Today I came across this article (via Crystal) arguing that American Christians should abandon the Republican and Democratic parties and form a “Christian party” that embraces something like Phillip Blond‘s “Red Tory” or “Big Society” program:

British theologian and political philosopher Phillip Blond correctly notes that, “the current political consensus” in the United States is “left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.” It’s also the fundamental reason why Christians cannot be at home in either political party – the Christian vision of the social and economic order is almost exactly the opposite of the current consensus.

The author, Michael Stafford, a lawyer and Catholic, argues that we need an American version of a European-style Christian democratic party to put this vision into action:

What would the views of a hypothetical presidential candidate from an American Christian Democratic Party look like? I think they would closely track Marcia Pally’s description of the ideal candidate new evangelicals are longing for, a candidate neither of the current major political parties are capable of producing – “someone who will help the poor, protect the planet and dramatically reduce the need for abortion, someone who will help both secular and faith-based organizations to do this work.”

I’d be the last to deny that both our major political parties have significant flaws. But even if it was possible to overcome the institutional barriers to third party success in the U.S. (ballot access, campaign finance, and our first-past-the-post election system), I don’t think that a “Christian” political party is particularly desirable.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to spell out the reasons why in any great detail, because this was ably done by C.S. Lewis over 70 years ago in an essay called “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”* Lewis points out that a Christian party “must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.” However, all political parties generally agree on ends: happiness, security, freedom, etc. Where they disagree is about what means are most effective in attaining these ends. But Christians, as Christians, have no special expertise or insight into what means will be most effective.

Lewis goes on to argue that, if all Christians formed a party, they would inevitably disagree over the means to attaining their ends. Lewis imagines three “types” of Christians who might make up such a party: an authoritarian, a democrat, and a revolutionary radical. All agree about the ends, but disagree radically about the preferable means. So what happens?

The three types represented by these three Christians presumably come together to form a Christian Party. Either a deadlock ensues (and there the history of the Christian Party ends) or else one of the three succeeds in floating a party and driving the other two, with their followers, out of its ranks. The new party — being probably a minority of the Christians who are themselves a minority of the citizens — will be too small to be effective. In practice. it will have to attach itself to the un-Christian party nearest to it in beliefs about means — to the Fascists if Philarchus has won, to the Conservatives if Stativus, to the Communists if Sparticus. It remains to ask how the resulting situation will differ from that in which Christians find themselves today.

The chief danger here (and this is presumably what the title of the essay means to refer to) is that a Christian party would be tempted to give its political views a kind of divine sanction:

By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great.


All this comes from pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers’ inheritance: `Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?’ By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us.

What Lewis suggests is precisely the course of action that Mr. Stafford is arguing against: Lewis says that instead of forming their own party, Christians should act as “leaven” in the existing political parties. He suggests that Christians might establish an interdenominational “Christian Voters Society” that would “draw up a list of assurances about ends and means which which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.” I take it that what Lewis has in mind here is a determination of what ends and means are “lawful” (i.e., morally permissible or obligatory) rather than what means are effective in bringing about desired ends.

In a fallen world where our knowledge is inevitably limited and our motives are clouded by self-interest, faithful Christians, like everyone else, are going to disagree on political issues. As Lewis argues, to try and paper over this disagreement with the formation of a Christian party will either result in political failure or religious betrayal.
*Found in the collection God in the Dock; a slightly truncated version can be found here.

Church, class, and bourgeois virtue

Jim Henley cites some recent research showing that church attendance correlates with income and “familistic and bourgeois values”; he goes on to offer some speculative explanations of why church might be inhospitable to working-class folks. I think there’s a lot of truth there, but I also have to ask, if this is a recent phenomenon (as the research Jim cites suggests), then what changed? Why are churches losing ground among the working class now? Is this something specific to churches, or are people who have lost ground economically losing faith in all the institutions in society (church, government, business)? After all, divisions between rich and poor in the church go back at least to the church at Corinth.

There are a few possible additional explanations I can think of, but it would also be helpful if we knew whether this phenomenon is evenly distributed among different kinds of churches. Are liberal mainline churches doing better or worse among working class people than conservative evangelical ones? While it might seem plausible, for example, that poorer people would find “prosperity gospel” preaching alienating, my sense is that this variety of Christianity actually is more appealing to those trying to better their economic condition than it is a post facto rationalization for wealth already accumulated, though it may also be that. (See this Peter Berger article on prosperity-type teaching among pentecostal Christians in the global south for a provocative take on that.) Meanwhile, I can think of reasons why lower-income working people might find the “peace and justice” preaching of some comfortably upper-middle-class liberal churches less than fully relevant to their lives.

Whatever the explanation, there’s clearly evidence that churches often become “self-selecting circles of the economically and socially successful,” as Jim puts it. What should–but apparently doesn’t–go without saying is that this is a far cry from the kind of community that Jesus gathered around himself and which Christianity at its best has embodied. The church isn’t primarily–if at all–supposed to be a training ground for bourgeois virtue, although it has certainly functioned that way for much of American history. If there’s a silver lining here it may be that this model of the church is finally dying a well-deserved death. But what, if anything, will replace it?

Any other thoughts?

The Christian politics of Mark O. Hatfield

Former senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon passed away this week at the age of 89. He was one of the last of the liberal Republicans–someone who bucked his party on many issues.

But Hatfield wasn’t simply a liberal Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller mold. He was a devout evangelical Christian, a virtual pacifist, and a “seamless garment” pro-lifer who opposed abortion and capital punishment.

Hatfield played an important role in the rise of the nascent evangelical Left in the ’70s. This article from Religion Dispatches describes his unique political outlook:

Hatfield did not embody the evangelical left perfectly; he was, after all, an anti-New Deal fiscal conservative in the Republican Party. But he pursued its unorthodox agenda in most respects. He was an unambiguous social conservative on abortion, but against capital punishment. He was an anti-war environmentalist. His populist call for “genuine political, economic, and ecological self-determination” meant reducing “excessive concentration of power” everywhere—not only in the executive branch of government and labor unions, but also in big corporations and the military.

At Reason magazine, Jesse Walker points out that Hatfield once expressed sympathy with the ultra-libertarianism of economist Murray Rothbard, even reading one of Rothbard’s articles into the Congressional Record. Hatfield was so admired on the Right and the Left that both George McGovern and Richard Nixon considered him as a potential running mate!

Hatfield’s outlook seemed to be equal parts evangelical Christianity and New Left counterculturalism. I’m not sure what larger lessons should be drawn from this except to note that there were times when the boundaries between Left and Right seemed much more fluid then they are now, and the role of Christianity in U.S. politics was up for grabs. An alternate history where the most influential version of Christian politics was decentralist, anti-war, environmentalist, and consistently pro-life would certainly be an interesting one.

Friday Links

–Iowa’s House approved a bill to make it illegal to film the goings on in factory farms; it still has to pass the Senate.

–The great Midwestern backlash.

–What is the difference between liberals and libertarians?

–Rejecting death-centered Christianity.

–The fondness some secular liberals have for fundamentalism.

–More than half of Americans now favor legal gay marriage.

–On Catholic scholar John Meier’s version of the historical Jesus.

–George Scialabba on Adam Smith.

–Fred Clark (a.k.a. the Slacktivist) on John Woolman, 18th-century itinerant Quaker preacher and abolitionist. (I’ve come across references to Woolman in multiple books I’ve read lately.)

–An interview with Tim Minear, who co-created Firefly with Joss Whedon and had a major hand in Angel (the Buffy spin-off and an excellent show in its own right). Plus: Joss Whedon 101: Serenity.

–Jeremy reviews Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins (which, by his account, doesn’t sound all that scandalous or unorthodox to me).


–Nine daily rituals to increase mindfulness.

–The theology of “The Adjustment Bureau.”